Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Sliding Into Irrelevancy

The church has been sliding into cultural irrelevance for a few years now. You see this not only in the rise of the 'nones' and the declining number of regular church attenders, but also in how seriously the culture  takes the perspective of the church on moral issues.

I've seen a huge shift in the 15 years I've been a pastor. When I started in church ministry, "I'm a pastor," granted me a degree of deference from almost everyone. Not any more. If anything, it's usually cause for dismissing me. [1]

I think I know one reason this is changing. [2] There has been a seismic shift in how our culture views the church, and it's not merely because we have clashing worldview. It's because Jesus' figurative warning has come true: our 'salt' has lost its saltiness, and it's being trampled (Matthew 5).

The recent revelations of John Crist’s moral failure, addiction, and abuse of power while building a public platform under the banner of “Christian entertainer” is going to function as a placeholder for a lot of other stories of scandal in church leadership that have taken the news cycle by storm in the past few years.

My goal is not to malign Mr. Crist (who has himself confessed to egregious moral failure) or aggrandize anyone else. My goal is to take an honest look at the state of the church in the United States right now, at least in how it is responding to public sin or failure.

This is going to take some time, so settle in.


It’s worth noting at the start that the ubiquitous nature of media is pushing ministry platforms faster than we can adjust to them.

Historically, it was easy to identify leaders in the church: they were, literally, leaders in a brick-and –mortar church (or network of churches). Social media has given rise to Christian celebrities, people who are not ordained or commissioned in church service but who rise to prominence and function as leaders if for no other reason than they are the face people associate with Christianity.  They have followers; their fan base pays attention to their opinions and their lifestyle.

Here’s the 21st century reality: If you're in the public eye, you're de facto a "Christian leader" of sorts, whether you have been appointed or have built a platform as a Christian. This includes authors, speakers, singers, comedians, etc.

In the traditional model, accountability was supposed to happen in the church (as has been happening with James McDonald). The New Testament and the early church were clear that confrontation of sinful actions in the context of close accountability was a crucial part of church life for everyone who followed Jesus, but especially for those whom people follow.

  • Titus 3:9-11  “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” 
  • Galatians 6:1  “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” 
  • 2 Thessalonians 3:13-15  “Do not grow weary in doing good. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” 
  • 2 Corinthians 2:5-11  “Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.”
  • Romans 16:17-18  “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.” 
  • 1 Timothy 5:19-20  “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” 
  • 1 Corinthians 5:11-13  “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. What have I to do with judging those outside the church? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? It is God, not us, who will render a judgment on those outside. As for you, ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’”

Confrontation and accountability was a big deal in the early church. Ideally – and this has not always played out as it should have in church history – the people of God hold each other accountable and demanding righteous living, especially in those who dare to lead. They did this not only for the sake of the victims and the reputation of the church, but for the sake of the one sinning. It was part of a process meant to end in restoration. Look at the previous verses: warn, comfort, forgive, restore. It was a process that was intended to end in the good of everyone.

Now, media has made this more complicated. When prominent Christians don’t function under the umbrella of local church authority, it’s much harder to discern who should do what in their lives, and even what kind of authority the Christian community has for someone who is not representing Christ while under accountability to a local church.

Charisma magazine, which is not known for this kind of journalism, pursued and published the story because “there were no signs that his existing support system was capable of or interested in curbing his behavior.”

Read that again. "There were no signs that his existing support system was capable of or interested in curbing his behavior."

The magazine noted: 
“We believe pastors and leaders who book Crist at their ministry events need to know the person they’re signing. We believe leaders who make Christianity part of their public persona—whether or not they are formally in ministry—should held to a higher standard. And above all, we believe the body of Christ must police itself and has an obligation to protect the innocent and vulnerable among us.”
Indeed. One would think that would be of primary importance.


It's not just what Mr. Crist did, though, that is deeply troubling. It’s how the Christian community is falling all over itself to avoid saying, without qualifications, something along these lines to those wounded by his sin:
"The writer of Proverbs noted a list of things God hates: “Eyes that look down on others, a tongue that can’t be trusted, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that conceives evil plans, feet that sprint toward evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and anyone who stirs up trouble among the faithful.” I think it’s safe to say God is angry at what has happened, and we are too.  He has taken God's name in vain, hurt you badly, and publicly shamed the reputation of the church. Whether or not the justice system gets involved, we will definitely be walking through a process of discipline with him as a church.
We are so sorry that his terrible representation of Christ and Christianity hurt you. Your woundedness and disillusionment are both heartbreaking understandable. We believe that God offers healing and restoration for all victims of use or abuse, and we commit to praying for you and offering whatever practical services we can to help bring that to pass. We would love to surround you with better representations of the love of God so you can experience the abundance of life in the Kingdom of God that Jesus embodied and promised for those who genuinely dedicate their lives to following in His footsteps."
Saying anything less makes it look like we are dismissing the seriousness of the damage that has been done to people and to the reputation of the church. The Bible never minimizes the terrible power of leaders who are false in their message or their life. Why should we? Anytime we deflect from or gloss over looking at the ugliness of sin, we do everyone a spiritual disservice.

I’ve seen this glossing happen two ways in the Crist story: blaming the victims for walking away from the faith (“Why were they so naïve as to think Crist would be a solid Christian? Don’t they know we are all imperfect?”), and dismissing criticisms by non-Christians as unfair or illogical.

Let's go back to an earlier verse:
  “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.” 
Did you notice what is missing from here? Paul blaming those who are naïve for being naïve. Why? Because their lack of maturity was not the heart of the problem. The journalist who broke the story for Charisma did not use the real names of the women because he was protecting them from other Christians:
There’s an unfortunately large group of believers who tend to instinctively side with the perpetrator and shame or harass the victims online. We decided we wanted to avoid that, and would stake our own outlet’s credibility and reputation on the fact that we believed the women. If anyone was mad about reporting on the allegations, they could be mad at Charisma, not at the individual women who bravely spoke out.”
How can this be true in a community of Christians???

We can say that they should have kept their eyes focused on Jesus; we can say that it’s not fair to judge the character of God by the character of His people.  Those things are both true, of course. But they are true in conjunction with this biblical truth: ‘deconversions’ often happen because God’s people do not live as God’s people should. And when that happens, the Bible condemns the perpetrator, not the victim.
  • Read all of what Peter has to say about false teachers in his second letter. He is clear: there are teachers or leaders who are disastrously wrong in their teaching and/or deeply corrupt in their lives, and they are the reason some people in the church go back to their former lives. (Peter keeps mentioning how these men took advantage of women, by the way.)
  • Paul writes in 2 Timothy 2 of teaching that spreads like cancer and destroys the faith of some. 
  • Acts 20 warns of ‘savage wolves’ from among the church who will draw disciples away from following Jesus to following someone else.

In other words, the Bible recognizes and warns about the power of false teachers. Peter uses the language of Jewish and Greek proverbs to note that because of their impact, people go back to their lives of moral "vomit" and "mud." There is a time to hammer home the reminders that we fix our eyes on Jesus, not people, for our hope; there is a place to remind each other over and over that God's character and nature transcend our flawed representations. I just don't think it's now.

When, in the wake of scandal, we place the blame on “deconverts” for being illogical or unfair or immature, we are ignoring the very real problem of corrupt people in the church who are a significant cause of people leaving the faith. The biblical writers do not give quarter when it comes to leadership. They always long for repentance and restoration for those who have fallen, but they do not pull any punches in their language or their direction about what to do. It’s bad. You can’t be a leader. You need to step down, step back, and focus on righteousness and integrity before the toxicity of leaders' sin shipwrecks the faith of those around them.

Read the requirements for church leaders in the New Testament (in the book of Titus, for example). These are the “shepherds,” overseers, guardians, teachers and modelers of the both the message and the transformative effectiveness of the Bible. For them, a moral high bar for all Christians has been raised even higher. The Bible is unflinching in demanding obedience, and the more someone moves into the forefront, the higher the bar is raised.

When you build your brand on the name of Christ and ask people to look at your or to you for spiritual formation or example, you get the responsibility that comes with it, ready or not. There is no hiding anymore with social media and technology.  That which is hidden will come to light. [3]


I have .0001% of the influential reach Mr. Crist has, let alone some of the other church megapastors, authors, and speakers who have been in the news. But even I know that, for that .0001%, how I live as a church leader matters.

On this side of heaven, I won’t ever be perfect. Those who know me can attest to this. However, there seems to be what I will call a “standard deviation” (for lack of a better term) that most people understand. God is in the process of making us something new, but that trajectory is not completed in this life. It’s why we extend grace to others all the time.

However, my “standard deviation” as a leader in the church, no matter how small my range of influence, is much less than it is for those who are not leaders.  If I can’t maintain the standard, I am not fit for leadership ministry in the church.  Those who disqualify themselves from the race (to use the Apostle Paul's language) must step out of the office, off the stage, out of the spotlight. This does not suggest that leaders who stumble and fall can never lead again – restoration is a thing – but there will be no rush. The test of time is a beautiful thing.

When Paul talked about living his life in such a way that he was not knocked out of the race - which I understand to mean defrocked of his ministry (1 Corinthians 9), he seemed to recognize that if he crossed certain lines he' was done in his apostolic role. This was so important that he describes himself as symbolically “beating his body into submission” to stay within the guardrails of the morally righteous path of life.

I'm wondering why the church in general is flinching away from this kind of demand for consistent and daunting level of obedience, especially among our leaders. If we don't do that, I fear we send a message that sin and the damage that ripples from it is not a big deal.

 God’s justice demands an accounting; God’s mercy does to. They are not at odds here. Both of them are integral not only to the nature of God but to our call on earth. Sometimes the most merciful thing that can be done for both victim and perpetrator is to let justice roll down.

Of course we also talk about the profound importance of grace and forgiveness. Part of the scandalous message of grace in the Bible is that God offers to Mr. Crist his own kind of healing and restoration on the other side of broken repentance. The work of God in both perpetrators and victims is capable of leading to a reconciliation on this side of heaven, as we have seen unfold so profoundly in so many cases. But if we want people to understand the profound nature of mercy, we must first embrace the profound importance of justice.


Several Christian friends have said a version of this to me this week:  “The thing that makes me question my faith the most is Christians.” I wish this kind of conversation were unusual. It’s not. After reading a rough draft of this post, a friend wrote this response:
“This really gets to the heart of one of the reasons I left the church...  It's not that I expect Christians to be perfect - as you said, there's a "standard deviation" range of human behavior that's to be expected from imperfect beings, which we are all. What drives me absolutely insane is the casualness with which major sins are dismissed of Christian leaders... Meanwhile [others] get absolutely reamed for every tiny misstep, or even fabricated missteps. The hypocrisy is maddening…  
This creates a very dangerous atmosphere, both for leaders - who are frequently enabled to continue in ministry without proper justice and reconciliation, and thus are likely to continue in their destructive patterns - and for victims, who are frequently told to forgive and forget and to (disgustingly) keep working in close proximity with their perpetrators while keeping silent about their pain. No wonder people leave in droves…. 
As we've talked about before, just being honest about someone's shortcomings… and being willing to hold leaders accountable and ask them to surrender power when they've abused it would go such a long way to restoring people's faith in the church… “

We live in spiritually perilous times, at least as far as the reputation of the church is concerned. There is no room – has there ever been, really? – for minimizing the seriousness of sin, excusing the presence of sin, or covering up the scandals that follow.  (A Christian friend whose “come to Jesus” moment happened through his arrest noted that "prison is a great place to seek God.”) 

There is, also, however, plenty of room for honesty, accountability, responsibility, humility, repentance, forgiveness, and restoration.

I don’t desire that Mr. Crist or any other church leaders caught in scandals be condemned to some dustbin in the corner of church or walk around with a scarlet letter on their foreheads. My desire is for genuine repentance in front of God and those they have harmed, recompense as much as is possible and in whatever way possible, and restoration of broken relationships.

If they return to ministry some day, there needs to be a deep confidence about that move in their accountability groups and home churches. There needs to be an inward and outward alignment of ongoing transparency, honesty, reflection, and confession. There needs to be years of (to quote Eugene Peterson) a “long obedience in the same direction.”

You, beloved, are the salt of the earth. But if salt becomes bland and loses its saltiness, can anything make it salty again? No. It is useless. It is tossed out, thrown away, or trampled. And you, beloved, are the light of the world. A city built on a hilltop cannot be hidden.  Similarly it would be silly to light a lamp and then hide it under a bowl. When someone lights a lamp, she puts it on a table or a desk or a chair, and the light illumines the entire house. You are like that illuminating light. Let your light shine everywhere you go, that you may illumine creation, so men and women everywhere may see your good actions, may see creation at its fullest, may see your devotion to Me, and may turn and praise your Father in heaven because of it. (Matthew 5:13-16)

[1] When I have mentioned this to other pastors, they have agreed that this mirrors their experience.

[2] There are multiple reasons. I believe this post addresses an increasingly important one. 20 years ago, the most important Christian apologetic was an intellectual argument. I am of the opinion that the most important apologetic now is a life of integrity. Also, here's a topic for a future post: the places where evangelicalism is growing the fastest are places that are the least hospitable to Christianity. The integrity and effectiveness of Christianity has never truly flourished in the halls of power or in the lap of luxury.

 [3]A brief word of advice here: I suspect if we Christians were just more honest about out struggles, imperfections and sins so that as a church community we were constantly confronting, challenging, encouraging and growing together, these stories would unfold quite differently. Apparently, plenty of people around Mr. Crist knew about his double life and did nothing. That’s a serious in-house problem. It’s much easier to blame victims for their responses than it is to address the real reason the sin and offense was able to grow and fester in the perpetrator.

[4] It’s worth nothing that, while God forgave David, the legacy of David’s sin hits first his own family and then his kingdom. There is a strong argument to be made that David began the trajectory that led to the eventual division of Israel.

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